Photo Courtesy of PEW

PEW Analyzes How Management of a Critical Forage Fish Could Help it Rebound

There are rules against overfishing menhaden in every state except Mississippi and Louisiana. That’s because overfishing depletes fish stock. In particular, Gulf menhaden is a primary food source for much of the marine wildlife in the state’s delicate fisheries. Without a food source, these fish leave to forage elsewhere and creates an even bigger imbalance to the local ecosystem.

With new management of this critical forage fish, PEW believes there is a way to help the species rebound.

New Way of Managing Menhaden, a Critical Forage Fish, Could Help Species Rebound
Groundbreaking science- and ecosystem-based measures could be adopted soon

In early February, the regulatory body that sets catch limits for menhaden—the country’s second-most-caught fish—will consider adopting a new way to manage the species, which is valued prey to wildlife. This is the first of three articles explaining why menhaden, and this potentially revolutionary decision, matter.

It’s a common scene along the U.S. East and Gulf coasts: a still patch of ocean, yards from the shore, broken suddenly by a roiling commotion. It’s a school of menhaden—a critical but little-known forage fish—darting and jumping to escape predators from below as seabirds seize the opportunity to dive from above.

Menhaden may be the most important fish you’ve never heard about. They’re not only prey for iconic wildlife—from humpback whales and dolphins to striped bass and ospreys—but they also are the East and Gulf coasts’ most-caught fish—and the second-highest catch in the U.S. behind Alaskan pollock.

In the coming weeks, the management body overseeing Atlantic menhaden will decide whether to adopt a more modern management system, which would have long-term consequences for the health of this species, and much of the marine ecosystem.

200 years of menhaden fishing: A short recap

Commercial fishermen have pursued menhaden in earnest since the early 1800s, largely for the same reason they hunted whales: as a source for lamp oil. Menhaden also were ground up to fertilize agricultural fields, a precursor to popular 20th-century uses as food for livestock, farmed fish, and pets and as essential ingredients in oil-based paints, cosmetics, fish oil supplements, and health foods. As overfishing reduced populations of other forage fish such as mackerel and herring, menhaden became increasingly important bait for lobster and crab fisheries.

For the rest from PEW, click here.